University of Minnesota working to create the country’s first ‘Super Ambulance’

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The University of Minnesota has started work on what officials call a "Super Ambulance," which they say will be the first of its kind in the country.

The Super Ambulance is outfitted with virtual reality technology. Researchers believe it will help save the lives of more Minnesotans.

The design team took 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS inside the official mockup Friday.

"There’s a 3D panoramic view from this camera here," explained John Hourdos, director of the Minnesota Traffic Observatory and research associate professor at the University’s Civil, Environmental and Geo-Engineering Department. "So it basically sees the whole room and it’s like a big IMAX screen."

Hourdos has spent the past two years developing the technology so all the equipment and cameras inside the Super Ambulance can transfer their feeds wirelessly and instantaneously.

The Super Ambulance in production right now is specifically designed for people in cardiac arrest.

"When people have a cardiac arrest, they basically race against the clock and every minute counts," said Dr. Demetris Yannopoulos, professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School. "Because the longer you are in cardiac arrest, the less likely you are to survive."

The video and audio feeds captured inside the ambulance would be beamed in real-time to an outside specialist.

That means a doctor at a hospital could put on a virtual reality headset and serve as an extra set of eyes, overseeing everything happening inside the ambulance. That person would be able to pull up the ongoing x-ray and ultrasound images, medical records and various camera angles of the patient.

"The physician can actually interfere and give orders and change things from far away," Dr. Yannopoulos said. "That is very unique in an emergency situation and has never been done before."

The Super Ambulance would include specialized medical equipment not typically available inside an ambulance, allowing the team inside to perform life-saving procedures.

It would include the ECMO, a machine that can temporarily take over for the heart and lungs. An ECMO eliminates the need for ongoing CPR so that the team can treat the underlying cause of the cardiac arrest.

ECMOs are currently available in SUVs in the Twin Cities to meet patients at participating emergency departments. The Super Ambulance expands on these efforts by bringing specialized care, essentially an ER and a cath lab, directly to the patient.

Dr. Yannopoulos said it could be critical for people who live far from a hospital, including those in rural areas. The virtual reality technology would allow a specialist to be virtually present on a call even when they cannot be physically present.

"So, potentially someday you could have one doctor in one hospital helping out in multiple Super Ambulances all over the state?" KSTP Reporter Alex Jokich asked.

"That is correct," Dr. Yannopoulos answered. "The idea is to multiply the role of one physician that has a lot of experience and guide resuscitations around the state."

Each Super Ambulance costs $1.8 million. This project is possible thanks to grant money from the Helmsley Charitable Trust.

The first Super Ambulance is currently in production in Iowa. The team hopes it can start being used in real-life emergencies in Minnesota by the fall.